Orioles reliever Jason Berken delivers a pitch during the seventh… (Rob Carr / Getty Photo )
Orioles right-handed relief pitcher Jason Berken looks like a different man this spring after losing at least 20 pounds since last season. Fortunately for the Orioles, he again is looking like the guy who was the club's best pitcher in the first half of 2010.
In his two outings this season, Berken has faced 10 batters and retired nine of them, including six on strikeouts.
In the seventh inning of Sunday's win, his first big league game since being shut down Aug. 13 with shoulder inflammation, Berken struck out the side, throwing 10 of his 15 pitches for strikes in the Orioles' 5-1 win against Tampa Bay.
In Monday's home opener, Berken pitched the seventh and the eighth, allowing just one hit and striking out three in the club's 5-1 win against the Detroit Tigers. In the eighth, the Tigers had righty Miguel Cabrera, switch hitter Victor Martinez and lefty Brennan Boesch due up. But instead of going with the bullpen's only lefty, Michael Gonzalez, or another reliever who didn't pitch Sunday, Orioles manager Buck Showalter stuck with Berken.
The 27-year-old Berken, who has gone two or more innings only three times in his past 19 outings dating to June 26, said he took Showalter's decision as a show of confidence.
"I hope so. I feel comfortable against both righties and lefties," Berken said. "I give a lot of credit to our pitching coaches for challenging me to throw my changeup this spring. ... That's a good pitch against lefties."
Earlier this spring, Berken was instructed by pitching coach Mark Connor and bullpen coach Rick Adair to stay away from using his slider, his best pitch, That forced Berken to work on his changeup. Now, Berken said, he feels good about both pitches, and that, along with improved conditioning, has been an early recipe for success.
"Overall, my body is working better, it is more efficient," Berken said. "The weight loss helped, so, as a whole, I really feel good about where I am at right now physically and mentally. I haven't felt this good in maybe ever."
It's been rewarding, Showalter said, to see Berken have immediate results after not having the opportunity to watch him at his best in August 2010, when the manager took over.
"You really like to see a guy who spent so much time in the offseason [working] with his body, with his shoulder, everything, get returns for it," Showalter said. "He's got a good feel for where he is physically."
A different perspective for Matusz
Last year, left-hander Brian Matusz couldn't wait to run down the orange carpet in his first home opener at Camden Yards. This year, the excitement was tempered slightly because he's starting the season on the disabled list with a muscle strain in the left side of his back.
"Last year, I remember vividly how much fun it was, seeing a packed stadium, everyone wearing orange. It is a cool moment, it really is. And I am happy to be able to be here," Matusz said. "Obviously, I'd rather be able to be here and pitch, but it is still cool to be here with the festivities and see all the fans and be with the team."
Matusz said his back felt better Monday, but he's not ready to put a timeline on his return. The club said he could be out between three and six weeks. How is he dealing with the inactivity?
"It's absolutely killing me. Every night," said Matusz before Monday's game. "But, at the same time, just watching Jeremy [Guthrie], [Chris] Tillman and [Zach] Britton pitch the way they did, I am behind them so much. I watched every pitch and followed them, and it feels like I am still playing, that I am still part of the team."
During Monday's pre-game ceremony, the Orioles honored former players and nonuniformed personnel who died in the past year. It included a video tribute to longtime Orioles umpires attendant Ernie Tyler, who passed away Feb. 10 at age 86.
The Orioles renamed the umpires room in Tyler's memory and announced that they will install a plaque on the umpires room door memorializing the man who once worked 3,819 consecutive home games.
Also, in honor of Tyler, the umpires at Camden Yards will wear wristbands this month bearing his initials. Several members of Tyler's family were on the field for the announcement.
Former Orioles manager Earl Weaver, who managed the 1970 World Series champions, threw out the ceremonial first pitch to Showalter. Right-hander Jake Arrieta threw the game's first pitch, a ball to Detroit's Austin Jackson, at 3:07 p.m. Nick Markakis had the first hit, a single to center. Matt Wieters got the first extra-base hit, a double, and scored the first run of 2011 when he sprinted home on a wild pitch in the second inning. Brian Roberts had the first homer in Baltimore in 2011 (and the Orioles' first road homer, too).
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